Has the BBC kept the faith?

The following blog was written by Sandford St Martin trustee Torin Douglas for the BBC Pensioners’ Association (BBCPA) newsletter and was first published there in December 2021. It’s being reproduced here with their kind permission.

Image from “Heaven Made” BBC One

December  23, 2021
Four years ago, the BBC promised to “raise its game” in religious broadcasting. Torin Douglas asks how it’s doing under new leadership, amid fears that Ofcom’s plans to relax the BBC’s quotas will make things worse.
Whatever else is in short supply this Christmas, there is no shortage of cathedrals on the BBC. At St Chad’s Birmingham (Midnight Mass), Coventry (Christmas Day Eucharist), Lincoln (Songs of Praise – Festive Joy) and Salisbury (BBC Young Chorister of the Year Final), BBC camera teams, presenters, producers and technicians have been out in force. Not to mention Christmas at Westminster Abbey with Katherine Jenkins and Carols at King’s.
There are convents and monasteries, too. Heaven Made, a three-part BBC Two series on holy gifts, explores “the ancient and holy production lines that are still thriving around the UK and Ireland”, showing “how Benedictine nuns and monks are still sharing their custom-made creations and the true meaning of Christmas.”
With more Christmas content online and on radio, the BBC says it is pursuing a “more joined-up approach” to faith programming. And twice this year, ahead of Easter and Christmas, it has showcased its religious output in media webinars addressed by key programme commissioners. So how is it doing in this crucial area of public service broadcasting?
Four years ago, in the 2017 BBCPA Christmas Newsletter, I wrote a piece headed “Can the BBC keep the faith?”. I pointed out that the BBC had no strategy for religion and, since it no longer had a ‘head of religion and ethics’, it was not clear who had overall responsibility. The Director-General had set up a review of religion and ethics, but this was pre-empted by a decision to move Songs of Praise out of the in-house Religion and Ethics department into two independent producers, prompting BBC Studios to close the department.
I quoted Rev Giles Fraser, who had just castigated John Humphrys for “slagging off” Radio 4’s Thought For The Day: “a culture of sniggering contempt towards religion is endemic within the BBC. To the overpaid panjandrums of the BBC, religion is for the little people, for the stupid and the gullible.”
I also declared an interest. After leaving the BBC, I became a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in religious broadcasting and runs the awards for programmes exploring faith, spirituality and ethics.
Within days of that article appearing, the BBC finally published its Religion and Ethics Review, conceding many points made by the Trust and others. It pledged to “raise our game across all output”, by increasing coverage of religion, particularly of non-Christian faiths; introducing faith-related storylines into popular drama and greater religious understanding into news reporting; and creating a global team of reporters with religious expertise, under its first religion editor. To underpin it all, the BBC would make 2019 a ‘Year of Beliefs’.
Nigel Holmes, author of “Losing Faith in the BBC” and a doughty campaigner for better religious broadcasting, wrote perceptively to this newsletter’s editor: “This remarkable volte-face on religious coverage is the result of the regulator, Ofcom, being given, for the first time, power by the Government to enforce public service obligations upon the BBC.”
Sadly Nigel, one of the founders of Radio Cumbria, died in 2019: the Bishop of Carlisle was one of many to pay tribute. In practice, that BBC report proved to be a false dawn. The ‘Year of Beliefs’ was a damp squib, rarely talked about by the BBC after a launch press release. It ignored the chance to “join up” and promote the faith storylines in dramas such as Call The Midwife, Les Miserables, The Archers and Glenda Jackson’s award-winning Elizabeth is Missing, or to showcase moral-issue dramas such as Broken, Care and The A Word. And though the BBC has continued to dominate the Sandford St Martin Awards, with several excellent TV and radio programmes, they are few and far between, often tucked away in dark corners of the schedules. Songs of
Praise, after being shunted around, has ended up at Sunday lunchtime.
By the end of last year, the BBC was restructuring under a new Director General, Tim Davie, facing an increasingly hostile government and deep financial cuts.
Last spring the BBC announced it was offering “more content than letters page of Radio Times, where the Sandford St Martin Trust’s chair, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Ripon, had just argued for more coverage “beyond the God slot”.
In my letter, illustrated with faith-focussed RT covers from the past, I wrote: “As the BBC’s media correspondent I remember the BBC highlighting ambitious Easter productions such as David Suchet: in the Footsteps of St Peter, The Gospel of St John narrated by David Harewood, The Great North Passion and the drama The Ark. Was there really more Easter content ‘than ever before’?”
Responding, Daisy Scalchi cited the Easter services on TV and radio (including one across 39 local radio stations), concerts on Radio 2 and Radio 3 – and content “beyond the God slot” in documentaries, drama and live debate. But she didn’t nail down the claim (even after adjusting it to “more Easter programming than in previous years”.) Daisy said the quality of the BBC’s religious broadcasting was recognised in the year’s Sandford St Martin Awards shortlists, which is true, but it must look to its laurels. While it won the Radio/Audio, Journalism and Children’s awards, the TV/Video award was won by Al Jazeera with Ashes to Ashes and the
Radio Times Readers’ Award went to Channel 4’s It’s A Sin.
At the Trust, we are still engaging positively with Daisy and her colleagues – and broadening our own expertise. The former head of religion and ethics at the BBC and Channel 4, Aaqil Ahmed, has just become a trustee, joining BBC Merseyside presenter Ngunan Adamu; Emyr Afan of Avanti Media; Nicola Meyrick, former head of BBC Radio Current Affairs, and others.
But the threats to religious broadcasting persist – as shown in The Times report about loosening BBC quotas. We feel alarm that Ofcom is considering replacing the BBC’s quotas with a new system that will allow the broadcaster to set its own targets. And we’ll keep challenging the BBC to raise its game, as it promised.